Guest Post: The Allegory of Fantastic Beasts, 8 (Son of ‘National Treasure’?)

FB 5by Chris Calderon

At last, the main course, the essential Allegory of Fantastic Beasts, the film adaptation.  Believe it or not, a possible deep hidden meaning of Rowling’s first screenplay will be her portrayal of the Magical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA)  and, in this depiction, a sideways look at the philosophical and religious roots of the American Nation. I’m half-convinced we’ll be able to see this in a veiled form behind her portrayal of the wizards of New York.

BurkeI’ll have to go into a bit of history and philosophy in order to make Ms. Rowling’s potential point clear.  It involves the American Founders and their relation to what the Inklings referred to as Mythopoeia and Warburg scholars Frances Yates and D.P. Walker called “The Ancient Theology”.  I will suggest that the Constitutional Framers had a familiarity with the Tradition through their reading of Adam Smith and John Locke, as well as a working knowledge of this Theology in the work of George Berkeley, Alexander Pope, and Edmund Burke.  This post is a brief overview of these various historical influences in turn on the Founders and the nation they shape.  

Jerusalem, Historic and Divine

The first stop on our tour is to touch base on a neglected fundamental, namely, that the ultimate source of modern Democracy is the history and traditions of Judeo-Christianity. That’s either cliché or a controversial statement, depending on the edition of your American history textbook.  Gleaves Whitney explains the conventional view:

To understand America, do not start with 1787. Or 1776. Or 1492. To understand America—or more precisely the most ancient roots of American order—go back to the second millennium B.C., to the Hebrews. Ancient Israel has had more influence on American culture than you think.

“…What they gave us through their sacred writings were timeless laws of behavior, moral insights that people from every continent and every age have accepted as fundamental to right living. They helped men and women order their souls (Whitney, web).

All politics, historiographers tell us, is grounded in the non-political.  Religion (Cult) along with Democracy and Culture (Cultus) grow out an apprehension of a Cosmic Order that is Spiritual at its core.  It is the attempt of man to understand and orient his life vertically towards that transcendent Order which generates the various human cultures through recorded time.  It also generates in humans on the horizontal or temporal plane the desire to reach an ideal state of equal harmony with one another, which in turn creates what might be the drive toward Democracy, something of a level political playing field (at least relative to feudal and caste polities).

It took Biblical Israelites, with their recognition of a single Mind creating and controlling the Order, to plant the seed of the Idea of Order in the human imagination.  In other words, a good description of the history of Democracy is the “Search for Order.”

Shakespeare and the Mermaid Club

The Bard of Avon is not found on most lists of America’s Founding Fathers (I checked).  However, according to Shakespeare and the Founders of Liberty in America by Charles Mills Gayley, a case for his being included can be made.  Shakespeare never once set foot in England’s New Colonies, of course, but his writings made it over, along with those of some of his drinking buddies.  They called themselves the Virginia Council.  They would meet together to discuss plans and Colonial Policy in a Cheapside pub in London called the Mermaid Tavern.  Regulars to the pub included Ben Jonson, John Donne, Michael Drayton, Inigo Jones, and, perhaps, Williams Shakespeare.

It turns out the Bard was good friends with some of the members of the Virginia Council and was aware of their plans to establish a fledgling democratic society in the new colony of Virginia.  It is even possible that certain plot elements of The Tempest were borrowed from accounts of the shipwreck and protracted journey to the new colony suffered by Council members George Somers and Thomas Gates (Gayley, 40 -42).

What is significant about the Bard’s familiarity with these unacknowledged Founders (one of whom went on to be a member of the Massachusetts Bay Colony) is that his acknowledgement of them in one or more of his plays forges a tenuous link of America and its democracy with hermetic Christianity and Literary Alchemy. I kid you not.  (For a fuller treatment of the Bard’s relation to these subjects, see Chap. 5 of Harry Potter’s Bookshelf).

A pointer to Shakespeare’s relation and encouragement of the Virginia group can be found in Hamlet’s statement that “the Time is out of joint”.  There is more than one meaning in that line about a breakdown in the temporal order in Denmark; the one that most concerns us is that it expresses the writer’s awareness that the old value grounded in medieval Christendom and the Ancient Theology are being slowly eroded in Renaissance England by the political necessity of the modern regimes.

The preservation of traditional Christendom was something Shakespeare longed to see accomplished and the Virginia Council’s efforts at democracy in the Colonies offered at least some cause for hope of the Prisca Theologia surviving there.  Like the French Huguenots of La Rochelle, the Virginians brought along the same three-tiered world view inherited from Israel, Greece, and Florence.  The upshot is that the early history of America is soaked through with Renaissance Hermeticism, beliefs and ideas which permeate Shakespeare’s plays.

There is no way to demonstrate that Rowling is attempting this sort of esoteric writing. There is,though, one way J.K. could signal attentive fans that she’s aware of all this.  In the latest Fantastic Beasts trailer, Queenie and Tina are shown taking Newt and Jake to a wizard speakeasy.  If that bar turns out to have a name like the Mermaid Club, or features Mermaids in either its title or in its set decoration, then it could count as a very covert nod to the Bard and all the political/artistic patrons of England’s Mermaid Tavern. look for it.

Locke, Smith, Newton, and Cambridge Platonism

The idea of preserving a medieval way of life doesn’t vanish when we come to the two philosophers commonly cited as the twin major big league players in the establishment of our Country’s system of government.  Granted that even the Renaissance had vanished by the time the Enlightenment philosophes John Locke and Adam Smith were even born, it was the ideas from those ages that still lingered in the public mind.

These two thinkers combined had the greatest impact on the American identity.  Smith’s Wealth of Nations forms the basis for our free market economy.  Locke’s Second Treatise of Government helped establish the concept of one person, one vote and the doctrine of religious tolerance and secular authority over faiths.  Before either of these giants wrote their way into historic infamy, though, they were immersed  in and formed by the Neoplatonic School of Cambridge University.

Both Locke and Smith were familiar with the philosophy of the Platonists.  Smith went so far as to acknowledge Henry More and Ralph Cudworth in an appendix to his The Theory of Moral Sentiments.  Locke meanwhile acknowledged that his philosophy, whatever its flaws, depended on the theory of The Great Chain of Being (Lovejoy, 184).  Locke’s acknowledgement may have come from a familiarity with Newton and his studies.  In his biography, Isaac Newton: The Last Sorcerer, Michael White details that “Newton trusted Locke (235)” while Locke in turned gave Newton an homage in the preface to An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (233).  Most important however is that according to White “…Newton opened up to (Locke)…revealing to him his own extreme religious views and alchemical practices” (ibid, 235).  Paul Oslington, meanwhile, in Adam Smith as Theologian claims that “Newton’s view of divine action is the background…of Smith’s invisible hand” (Oslington, 65).

The importance of all this lies in the fact that the two main theorists behind the modern American identity were familiar with the Christian Hermeticism of both Newton and the Cambridge Neo-Platonists.  What’s more, both worked this Hermeticism consciously or unconsciously into their most influential works, both of which were key source texts for the Founding Fathers.  Ergo, Locke and Smith have hidden in their works a veritable plethora of Medieval/Renaissance knowledge which has wound up, through their students the Founding Fathers, in the Declaration, Bill of Rights, and the Constitution.

The Triumvirs: Burke, Berkeley, and Pope

With George Berkeley, Alexander Pope, and Edmund Burke we return to the preservation of a way of life.  Taken together, they contribute two important details to the picture of a more alchemic Nation.  It was Bishop George Berkeley’s brief sojourn in Rhode Island that provides the last piece of the puzzle.  How Berkeley wound up in Newport is convoluted.  The main point is that it was a growing disillusionment with the nature of modern English politics and society that washed the Bishop ashore on the New Land.  His complaints against the Empire were the first rumblings of what became a nationwide complaint in the Colonies.

In this complaint, the statesman Burke, and then later the poets Coleridge and Wordsworth found common cause.  What they all felt was that in the growing disbelief in an older view of both England and the world at large, the British Empire was edging dangerously close to national ruin.  Together, Berkeley, Burke, and Wordsworth made various appeals to turn the national tide, yet each time they more or less failed.  The viewpoint that united them all was Prisca Theologia or Ancient Theology as expounded by Ficino and Hermes Trigmegistus (Crowe, Patriotism and Public Spirit: Edmund Burke and the Role of the Critic in Mid-Eighteenth-Century Britain, 56).  They believed that the recovery of a sacramental view of reality was the one idea that could stave off disaster.  A good summary of their shared viewpoint is in Pope’s Essay on Man.  It is a classic description of the older doctrines that guided the likes of Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe.

However, none of these voices were heeded in their home turf.  By contrast, Agnes Marie Sibley reports in Alexander Pope’s Prestige in America that the Essay gained much more attentive and popular reception in the 13 Colonies thanks to the efforts of Ben Franklin (Sibley, 2).  In the same way, Edwin F. Gaustad details how Berkeley’s warnings and his theology (in particular Siris) gained wider acceptance abroad than at home.  All of which brings us to the men of the hour.

In our penultimate entry, I’ll seek to demonstrate that the group of gentlemen who made up the Founding Fathers were as steeped in the same hermetic lore as their predecessors.

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